Take a public high school; add a Kenyan teacher and his colleague, both committed to international health; interested students, plus a strong organizer, and a willingness to take small steps, and you may be able to significantly improve the quality of life for villages on two African hilltops thousands of miles away.
That’s what happened when chemistry teacher Lillian Rankel and biology teacher David Angwenyi, impelled by interested students at Hopewell Valley Central High School, started a Model World Health Organization club to help students become “aware of global health issues,” Rankel says. Her husband, mechanical engineer Andy Jackson, who got involved early on, says they were investigating different diseases around the world. “When they came to malaria, David said, ‘We need a field trip to Kenya,’” he says.
He had in mind Nyanchonori, the village where he grew up in the Keroka area of western Kenya. A first visit in 2007 was followed by the formation of a nonprofit, the Hopewell-Keroka Alliance, in 2008 to support improvements in the Keroka community in Kenya.
Having completed major infrastructure and medical projects over its first 10 years, the alliance, recently energized by the addition of five new board members, is looking toward a future that builds on its successes, possibly focused on the areas of education, entrepreneurship, and empowerment. To celebrate its progress and begin to gather funding for the future, the alliance will hold its 10th anniversary gala at Stonybrook Watershed’s new green educational building, on Oct. 21 from 6 to 9 p.m.
The cost is $100 a person, with suggested donations of $125 or $150. The evening will include dinner from Cugino’s; a silent and live auction; presentations about the alliance’s work; information tables, and running slide shows.
The first small step that led to a big change the lives of 10,000 Western Kenyans was the WHO club’s raising about $1,500 under its first student president, Kathleen Reside of Pennington, to purchase mosquito nets to lower the incidence of malaria in Keroka. Jackson was working at Exxon-Mobil, where he had met Rankel; knowing of the company’s initiative to eradicate malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, he contacted its foundation to ask for a match for the student-raised funds.
“They called back and said, ‘How about $35,000?’ so instead of a pickup truck of nets, we had a tractor trailer,” Jackson says.
Using Mobil’s contact with a Tanzanian company that made treated bed nets, they were able to order 5,000. Working through the churches, they identified the most vulnerable in their congregations—pregnant women, children and older people—and received plastic coupons for 100 bed nets that they would pick up at a central point.
During the WHO club’s 2007 trip to Keroka the students were able to demonstrate to villagers how to put up those bed nets and to help them attach them to their beds.
Jackson says, “Before we went, the community of 10,000 would have about 3,000 cases of malaria a year. A small number will die, but the others will be sick for three weeks to a month to the extent that they can’t do anything.” Once a person gets bitten by a mosquito, it spreads the disease to others.
The first year after delivery of the nets malaria cases dropped to 2,000, the next year to 1,000, and they are now in the low 100’s. “We have made a difference in the sense not only that people are not getting sick and dying but the economy of the area remains constant,” Jackson says.
Meeting the villagers on the trip was eye-opening for the students. Pointing to her own kitchen, Rankel says, “They might have a house as big as this kitchen and eight people live there. They have the clothes on their back and maybe one or two others hanging up. In reflection after we left the village area, the students realized how lucky were living in Hopewell Township and how little these people have.”
Deciding they wanted to do more, they held a community meeting in October 2007 at the high school, where they decided to form the Hopewell-Keroka Alliance, and in June 2008 got their nonprofit status.
Due to violence in Kenya following the election at the end of 2007, the students did not take another trip until 2010. In the spring of 2009, however, Angwenyi visited and, meeting with a group of local community leaders, formed a Kenyan version of the Hopewell-Keroka Alliance, HKA-Keroka. That nonprofit included representatives from all the local churches, which had taken over in the absence of much government assistance. “The churches had never worked together as a group, and that was a pretty important step,” Rankel says.
Jackson returned to Keroka in summer 2009 while Rankel was in Thika doing programming for teachers. Having learned in 2007 that there was some competition among the churches for aid, he says, “we began to realize we had to let them know we were a secular organization, and we wanted to work with the community as a whole.”
After meeting with his Kenyan counterparts and touring the community, Jackson wrote a report listing what he thought they could accomplish and, he says, “we have worked off that report for the last seven or eight years.”
Keroka’s major cash crop was tea, and the first thing it needed was to complete a local tea buying center that the villagers had abandoned when money ran out. The tea factory purchased all its tea from local buying centers and the one nearest to Nyanchonori was in Rigoma, 3 kilometers away. The cost to finish the center was $7,000, as long as the funding went directly to the locals (“If it is sent to Nairobi, 90 percent disappears,” Jackson says.). Funds were supplied to the alliance by Charles S. Morehouse of Morehouse Engineering in Hopewell to cover materials as well as some paid labor to augment labor the Kenyans supplied.
On July 26, 2010, the new Nyanchonori-Riomanga Tea-Buying Centre was opened for business, and Hopewell students and members of the alliance were there to celebrate. They were able to watch the inspection process at the new center, wherein each tea producer dumps a bag of tea on the wide benches that line the center’s walls. Each sprig of tea, which is picked off the top part of a branch, must have two leaves and a bud, and if the inspectors find even one sprig without these they refuse the whole bag.
The motivation for and success of the new tea-buying center was clear. As Jackson explains, “Instead of women having to walk to another tea buying center in another village with 40 pounds on their head and finding out that the truck [from the factory] is not coming or might have already left, or it was such a hot day that the tea gets dried out and they don’t accept it; and also the time involved, now there is a regular schedule—they produce so much that the tea truck goes to the center every day.”
Later on, the center was electrified so it could also serve as a community center, for meetings and even weddings, and the village purchased plastic chairs to rent out for these events at 10 cents a chair. Today the scales at the center have a Bluetooth connection to the tea factory, where the women and other deliverers have accounts for tea. “Now the women are getting the money in the account, and the men can’t drink it up,” Jackson says. “So they can use the money to put their kids in school.”
A rewriting of Kenya’s constitution as a result of the violence in 2007 and 2008, passed in 2010 and implemented in 2013, devolved significant power to the 47 counties, now responsible for infrastructure.
Through Rankel’s connections with the education minister through her work educating the blind, she and Jackson met the governor of Nyamira County, who was interested in working together with them on infrastructure projects like building a road and digging a bore hall for a well. “That’s how we have been able to leverage the money we have put in,” Jackson says, noting that the governor also encouraged the alliance to write a how-to book for anyone who wants to set up a school-based organization in Kenya.
The next project, at a cost of about $50,000, involved the conversion of 4.8 kilometers of dirt tracks, which were impassable to vehicles several months each year, to all-weather five-meter-wide stone roads, with ditches down both sides and culverts to allow streams to go under the roads. On July 19, 2012. Hopewell students and members of the alliance attended the official opening of what has been named the Hopewell Road.
The new roads not only make it easier to bring tea to the center, but also enables ambulances and police to travel much more effectively. Formerly, Rankel says, “If someone got sick, they were put in a wheelbarrow and pushed down the dirt roads, and most of the time they died on the way. Now a car can quickly bring an ill person to the town hospital. The roads have also enabled motorcycle taxis, and they are hoping to introduce a minivan system to offer inexpensive, scheduled service.
Healthcare facilities have also improved with the help of the alliance.In 2007, the only care locally was from a nurse was set up in a two-bedroom house, who had a few medicines: antimalarials, antiobiotics, and cough medicine. With the support of the government and local money, a new medical center was completed in Nyanchonori in mid-2010 and one in Mong’oni nearby opened in May 2012.
The Hopewell-Keroka has been able to offer targeted help, for example, $2,500 for materials to help complete the center in Mong’oni, $250 to the Nyanchonori Center to purchase two gas cylinders for their gas-fired refrigerator, where they can stock vaccines and other heat-sensitive medicines, $1200 in 2012 to purchase a microscope with centrifuges and blood sample handling equipment for malaria diagnosis. Today the Nyanchonori center has four full-time nurses, a pharmacist, and a fully stocked pharmacy (which also carries mosquito nets), and the Mong’oni center has two nurses as well as medicines (but not as many as in Nyanchonori).
As early as the 2007 trip, the critical role of electricity came out in conversations between American and Kenyan students. Once the American teens realized that the village had no electricity, they asked the Kenyan students, “Would you like to have electricity to watch TV and play computer games?” The Kenyans answered: “No, if we had electricity, we could do our homework at night.”
“These kids know that an education is their only way out of this rural community. Our students learned how lucky they were—they take education for granted here and had no idea that other people in the world don’t have this,” Jackson says.
Kenya Power and Light’s rural electrification program, with the cooperation of HKA-Keroka, installed transformers to supply the three Nyanchonori high schools, seven primary schools, and two vocational schools as well as the two health-care centers and the tea-buying center and to provide access to homeowners able to pay for a connection. In 2014, the alliance sent $10,500 to connect these buildings to the grid and install internal wiring for lights and outlets. In March 2015, they sent $8,800 to help complete the project.
The last major project was a water well and rooftop collection systems to solve the existing process of getting water: using available containers to carry water from a small stream a few hundred yards uphill several times a day (and, during the dry season, from a river farther away). The county dug the 600-foot-deep borehole encased in steel with a solar water pump. The alliance paid for a backup connection to the electric grid and other related expenses. Most people will buy water from a kiosk in town, but some who can afford the connection fee will have a meter and run water to their houses. In March 2016 the borehole was completed and two 10,000-liter tanks installed.
Finally, on every trip students bring an extra 50-pound suitcase packed with items for the schools: books, paper, and sports and science equipment.
Having progressed so far in infrastructure and health care over the last 10 years, the alliance’s board has started to consider what its contribution will be over the next 10 years. One idea batted around at a recent board meeting was putting computer labs in the schools, which would enable shared lessons between the high schools in the two countries. But one board newbie David Sherwin raised a provocative question, “Why that project as opposed to other possible projects?”
That got Jackson thinking. Recently he woke up in the middle of the night with a vision for a 10-year plan involving education, enterprise, and empowerment, which will be on the agenda of the next board meeting.
In education, the question posed is what the alliance can do to dramatically improve the schools in Nyanchonori. Currently they have been considering a “level playing fields project” (one soccer field is 20 feet higher on one side than the other). Given that Hopewell Valley recently spent $1.5 million for new football, soccer, and baseball fields, Jackson says the idea for this project is to “physically level the fields and level the opportunities between Hopewell and Kenyan kids.” A critically important question, he adds, is “what can we do to improve science labs, science equipment, classrooms, and provide better opportunities for students?”
Noting that the tea factory was an enterprise project, Jackson says his idea is to “put in a couple of buildings, with tools and desks, so people who have ideas can start businesses.” In a 2016 meeting, the governor’s chief executive told Jackson and Rankel that “the biggest thing we need in this community is jobs.”
Jackson encapsulates the problem as follows: “If we get a lot more kids educated to the high school level, they think they are too good to work in the fields but there are no jobs for them to do, so there are lots of educated and unemployed or underemployed kids. Lots go to the city; some gets jobs and some don’t. What we can do is to develop entrepreneurial job opportunities locally?”
Talking to the third leg of his suggested program, Jackson says, “Empowerment came from a recognition that this community has always expected things to be shared from above—from the Kenyan national government, county government, and the churches—as opposed to setting up a small local government organization like Hopewell or Pennington Borough or Hopewell Township.” Jackson’s idea is to train community members to set up a local government, chamber of commerce, better business bureau, water company, road management, and perhaps a centralized parent-teacher organization for the schools.
“All of the students on the trips are changed, and all are much more aware of issues in developing or underdeveloped countries,” Jackson say.
Several students who have been on the Kenya trips in 2007, 2010, 2012-14, 2016, and 2017 remain involved in African issues. Samantha Lee, who with her mother is on the board of the Hopewell-Keroka Alliance, finished college at Georgetown University. She did a project in Tanzania, has learned Swahili, and last year in Kenya did a survey to understand people’s water needs. Sierra Kochersperger, whose mother joined the board this year, went on the 2016 trip and assisted with the 2017 trip. Kathleen Reside also remains involved.
The Hopewell-Keroka Alliance raises money in a variety of ways, including a yearly flea market at the high school, an all-night soccer program where students pay to participate, a henna-painting booth shared with the WHO club on Pennington Day; bake sales; a Souper Bowl Day where local restaurants provide their favorite soup and people pay for a dinner of bread and soup; and also individual donations on the website. Some students have asked friends and family to make a donation to the alliance instead of presents on their 16th birthdays.
Today Angwenyi consults with the Hopewell-Keroka Alliance to avoid a conflict of interest.
Angwenyi, who came to the United States in his early 20’s, graduated from St. Peter’s University, then worked in pharmaceuticals before becoming a high school teacher in Hopewell Valley.
Rankel was already interested in world health while a student at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, New York. On a month-long student trip to Veracruz, Mexico, she worked on health cartoons in Spanish, with Donald Duck, giving advice like “Don’t build your outhouse next to your well.” They also whitewashed the inside of houses. “When you whitewash,” Rankel explains, “it kills all the bugs that are living in the mud.”
Rankel earned a master’s in chemistry at Fordham, then a PhD from Princeton University, where she studied catalysts, inorganic chemistry, and anticancer drugs.” She worked at Bell Labs doing integrated circuit processing for five years, then got a position at Mobil, which was upgrading heavy crude oil to gasoline, using catalysts.
In 1996 as Exxon-Mobil was closing its Hopewell facility, PhD chemist Lillian Rankel moved to a position teaching at Hopewell Valley Central High School.
Since her retirement from high school teaching in 2010, much of her teaching has moved to the volunteer realm, and she teaches nursery school, teaches algebra at a federal prison and tutors for the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen.
Rankel is also a paid consultant, through MDW Educational Services and its sciencefortheblind.com website, which began when Trevor Saunders, one of Rankel’s students who went to Kenya on the 2007 trip, wanted to take Honors and AP Chemistry. So Rankel got together with her friend Marilyn Winograd and a PhD student at Penn State to develop tactile techniques for blind students to work in the lab.
Rankel studies what 2 to 4 year olds can do in nursery school, emphasizing that “there should be the same expectations for blind students.” She is working with the Lions Club to help with blind schools in Kenya. She has also written two children’s books, Friendship Tea and All in a Day’s Work, to increase expectations for the blind in Kenya, which show how they “can contribute to the family, work, and help out like sighted children can.” They are not working on through the Hopewell-Kenya Alliance, Jackson says, because they can’t do both types of work under the same funding mechanism.
Rankel and Jackson met at Mobil. After Mobil left Hopewell, Jackson’s job moved to Paulsboro and later to the merged Exxon-Mobil’s research department in Paulsboro, New Jersey. After retiring from Exxon in 2009, he was offered a job as a full professor in mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.
Calling himself “by nature an organizer,” Jackson served as president of the American Society of Lubrication Engineering (now the American Society of Tribology) in 1995-96 and editor of its technical journal for seven years. In 2009 he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, where he is currently chair of the mechanical engineering section.
Jackson is also advisor to University of Pennsylvania engineering students who build an electric car to compete at Society of Automotive Engineers competitions; they were national champions this year and two years ago, and came in second last year because they had a breakdown. His students had the fastest car in the country, going from 0 to 60 mph in 2.6 seconds and doing 90 miles per hour at 75 meters. He has served for 10 years as treasurer of the Hopewell-Keroka Alliance.
Speaking about what he has learned from is involvement with the alliance, Jackson says, “I’ve learned that the first time you go, you think this is overwhelming, that you can’t do anything and how can I cope with poverty. What I learned is I can’t solve the whole world’s problems. If you start with something and build to something, you have a full community we have helped and have ideas to work into the future.”